Published November 3, 2023
By Jana Eisenberg
With a seemingly endless well of empathy and an extraordinary understanding of the trauma- and solutions-informed viewpoint that the UB School of Social Work espouses, Jessica Al Kadi, MSW ’23, seems to embody social work’s future. This while being both grounded in the present and deeply informed by her past.
The 24-year-old grew up in Lebanon, experiencing the trauma and uncertainty that war can wreak. Now that she’s a social worker, she has the language to name what she, her family and community went through.
“I didn’t know about generational trauma, but I saw that my parents were in survivor mode,” she says. “Their day-to-day lives were affected; our family was also affected by my grandparents’ experience in earlier conflicts. When I was around 14, I started asking: ‘Why do humans behave how they do?’”
That curiosity has only grown stronger. When the chance arose to come to Buffalo after high school, Al Kadi grabbed it. Landing here at 17, she enrolled in community college and found herself in culture shock. While her options were much greater than they’d been at home, she was in a new position as an immigrant, coming to understand how it is to be perceived as “other.”
“It was hard to find community,” she says. “To fit in, I’d have to change — and if I didn’t, the isolation and loneliness would increase.”
She transferred to UB, declaring a double major in psychology and health and human services. But, she says, “Something still wasn’t aligning; the courses didn’t talk about things that are happening in the Middle East, things that affect behavior and mental health, like violence, war, colonization.”
Post-undergrad, she was still searching. She consulted her then -advisor about her interest in systems and policies. “He recommended I look into social work; when I did, a light bulb lit up,” she says. Her childhood taught her not to have expectations for the future, but at that moment, she could picture herself as a social worker.
She entered the MSW program determined to be authentic and meet people as individuals, not, she says, “as their titles.” She felt invited by the school to do that.
“An important part of my UBSSW experience was finding shared values, vision, purpose and community with students and faculty, staff, even the dean,” she attests. “When you find that, you can be yourself.”
Her UBSSW experience has driven home that advocacy is a big part of social work; she credits the school with fostering an environment where students can self-advocate.
“Learning how to advocate starts in the classroom,” says Al Kadi. “Members of my class and I urgently pushed back, for example, if we felt something was not being taught through the trauma-informed lens.” She notes that faculty, in particular Professor Emeritus Hilary Weaver, and her fieldwork liaison, Paige Iovine-Wong, MPH/MSW ’20, both listened and thanked her for her advocacy.
Al Kadi is a natural leader. Her grandfather, a community organizer, saw her potential and endowed her with some of his beliefs: “The higher up you go as a leader, the more you should give back — true leadership comes from the bottom up.” As president of the school’s Graduate Student Association, she put those ideas into action. “I was determined to use this position of power to listen to and advocate for student needs,” she says.
Among other honors, Al Kadi received a Behavioral Health Workforce and Education Training Fellowship and won the school’s Outstanding Student Award. With her parents in attendance, she was a speaker at her 2023 graduation. She now is a counselor at BestSelf Behavioral Health, a position she earned after completing fieldwork there.
Her curiosity and passion grow stronger still. “I will never stop learning. Even now that I’m not in school, I’m looking for training and opportunities,” Al Kadi says. “I want our society and world to be better, and I will keep fighting for that — with love, humility and compassion. Anger is crucial, but anger without love is destructive.”
On a trip to Lebanon last year, she engaged with the community, offering psychoeducation meetings, asking what they needed. “Even when I’m in Buffalo, I’m thinking about my people. I want to continue to do things for them,” she says. “Maybe not now. I’m not an expert; I still have a lot to learn.”